Controversial Michigan Megachurch Pastor Leaving Church

Rob Bell ignited debate this year when he questioned the existence of hell.

ByABC News
September 23, 2011, 4:16 PM

Sept. 24, 2011 — -- A controversial evangelical pastor at the head of a Michigan mega-church is leaving the church he founded in order to reach a broader audience by going on tour with new material.

Pastor Rob Bell of the Mars Hill Church in Grandeville, Mich., sparked debate earlier this year when he published his book "Love Wins." In the book, he challenged the fundamental Christian idea that after a final judgment, some people go to heaven while others go to hell, drawing sharp criticism from many conservative evangelicals.

Bell questioned whether hell existed and entertained the idea that, if it does exist, perhaps people sent there have a chance to leave and go to heaven.

In a statement, the Mars Hill church announced with "deeply mixed emotions" that its founding pastor was leaving.

"Feeling the call from God to pursue a growing number of strategic opportunities, our founding pastor Rob Bell, has decided to leave Mars Hill in order to devote his full energy to sharing the message of God's love with a broader audience," the statement read.

The church's Facebook page received an outpouring of comments from Bell's devoted followers expressing support, sadness, excitement and even some frustration.

"I am shocked and sad that Rob is leaving. No one can make you think about life, love and faith like Rob Bell except God Himself," wrote Kerry Byrne. "Best of luck Rob in your future and thanks for making us think and allowing us to question freely. We love you!"

While many messages expressed bittersweet emotions and well-wishes, a few were upset that he did not speak with the congregation himself before releasing the news publicly.

"I attended Mars Hill for quite a few years and am upset that Rob didn't share with everyone this Sunday at the church before the media got a hold of this," wrote Heather Den Houter. "I hope that someone in leadership at the church reads this and realizes that with a leader, like Rob, that he should have told the church people first."

Bell has posted a tease for his upcoming "Fit to Smash Ice" tour on his website along with appearance dates already listed for eight cities.

"Have I ever told you the story about the smoke machine at the wedding? Or time I hit my head and had to be told who I was? Or the one about Eleazar and the elephant?" Bell asks on his website. "I don't think so. Which means it's time for a tour."

When his book was published in March, Bell angered many conservative evangelicals who spoke out against him and published a slew of books repudiating his claims.

One of these authors was Mark Galli, senior managing editor of Christianity Today, but even he admits that he understands Bell's decision to leave. Galli wrote a book called "God Wins: Heaven, Hell, and Why the Good News Is Better than Love Wins."

"We have disagreements about some pretty fundamental points of theology, but he's a very effective and powerful pastor and many have been moved and touched by what he's done," Galli told "We're sparring partners with a common goal to share the gospel of Christ."

The church said that Bell will be addressing the church community this Sunday to discuss his departure.